House of Commons Debate on EU Sanctions (Iran)

Robert Halfon (Harlow, Conservative)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on EU sanctions relating to Iran and the threat from Iran to close the strait of Hormuz.

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)
Yesterday I attended the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, where member states agreed a new and unprecedented set of sanctions against Iran. These include a phased oil embargo, a partial asset freeze of the central bank of Iran, measures against Iran’s petrochemical sector and a ban on Iranian transactions involving gold. This is a major increase in the peaceful, legitimate pressure on Iran to return to negotiations over its nuclear programme. It follows the financial measures that the United Kingdom imposed on 21 November and the widening of EU measures on 1 December. Sanction measures, often close to those of the EU, have been adopted by the United States, Canada, South Korea, Norway, Switzerland and Japan. These are in addition to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. At our joint press conference this morning, the Australian Foreign Minister announced that his country will replicate these new EU sanctions, and we will urge other nations to do the same.

Iran is in defiance of six United Nations Security Council resolutions, which call on it to suspend its uranium enrichment programme and to enter negotiations. Its recent decision to enrich uranium to 20% at an underground site in Qom demonstrates the urgent need to intensify diplomatic pressure on Iran to return to negotiations. The programme has no plausible civilian use, and Iran tried to keep it secret.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has expressed serious concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, and Iran is now in breach of 11 resolutions of the IAEA board of governors.

Sanctions are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Our objective remains a diplomatic solution that gives the world the confidence that Iran’s nuclear programme is for purely peaceful purposes. We are ready to talk at any point if Iran puts aside its preconditions and returns to negotiations.

Iranian Vice-President Rahimi was reported as saying in December:

“If sanctions are adopted against Iranian oil, not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz.”

It must be borne in mind, however, that 95% of Iran’s oil exports, representing more than 80% of its foreign earnings, transit the strait of Hormuz, so it is very much against Iran’s interests to close the strait to oil exports.

Britain maintains a constant presence in the region as part of our enduring contribution to Gulf security, and the Royal Navy has been conducting such patrols since 1980. At the weekend, HMS Argyll and a French vessel joined a United States carrier group transiting through the strait of Hormuz. This was a routine movement, but it underlined the unwavering international commitment to maintaining rights of passage under international law. Any attempt by Iran to block the strait would be both illegal and unsuccessful.

We call on Iran to answer the questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to adhere to the UN’s Security Council resolutions, to suspend its enrichment programme and to return to the negotiations that are the only way of reaching a peaceful and long-term settlement in its dispute with the international community.

Robert Halfon (Harlow, Conservative)
[…] Iran is at crisis point. It is the new Soviet Union, of the middle east. It supports terrorism, undermines democracy and is trying to stop the Arab spring in Syria, but now we are threatened by an Iranian nuclear bomb, which risks the security of the Gulf states, Israel and the whole region.

Two weeks ago, Iran admitted that it had begun enriching high-grade uranium, and the regime is now threatening to close the strait of Hormuz, which deals with more than 20% of internationally traded oil. The UK Government could not have done more to try to contain the problem, with unprecedented action to isolate Iran’s financial sector by the Chancellor, and the extra EU sanctions imposed this week by the Foreign Secretary, but the question must now be asked: are we facing the prospect of a nuclear dictatorship in the middle east?

In the past, nuclear deterrents worked because of mutually assured destruction, but for MAD to work one has to be sane, and the Iranians have said that they would be happy to use nuclear weapons. Will my right hon. Friend set out to the House what military action Britain and the allies are planning in the strait of Hormuz? Will he explain what will happen if the latest economic sanctions do not work? What more is being done to bring Russia and China to the UN table? […]

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)
[…] The human rights record and much of the international behaviour of the Iranian Government, such as the recent plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington—in addition to the nuclear programme—give grave cause for concern to the international community. But it is because there is a very serious danger of the wider proliferation of nuclear weapons across the middle east if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons capability, that this issue must be confronted and that we and our European partners, and so many other allies, take the strong stance that we do. […]
I say to my hon. Friend that we have contingency plans for many contingencies—including, as my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary said at our press conference this morning, for sending any further naval forces to that area. But we are not planning to take military action in the Gulf. We call on Iran to return to the negotiations that are, at all times, available to it.


Tony Baldry (Second Church Estates Commissioner; Banbury, Conservative)
Given the recent international behaviour of the Iranian Government, is not one of the sad truths that we cannot trust any of the undertakings that they give? We therefore need two things from them—not simply an unconditional return to negotiations but preparedness to give unfettered access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to go wherever in Iran they want to. That would give them the competence to find out whether Iran was complying with whatever it told the international community it was doing.

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The verification of any agreement with Iran would be very important, and the presence of IAEA inspectors there is crucial. I referred earlier to the enrichment of uranium to 20% at the underground facility that Iran has built in Qom, which my hon. Friend will remember Iran kept secret for a long time. It was exposed by western nations including the United Kingdom, and if that had not happened, Iran would probably have kept it secret to this day. The level of trust is not very high.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
Iran remains a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and the last review conference called for a nuclear-free middle east. There is, however, one nation in the middle east that does have nuclear weapons, and that is Israel. Does the Foreign Secretary not think that it would be useful if we took up the suggestion of the NPT review conference to convene a denuclearisation conference of all nations in the region, in order that there could be direct talks? Iran would then be in a position to give assurances that it had no intention or wish to develop nuclear weapons.

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)
Indeed, the commitment to have such a conference in 2012 was given at the NPT review conference in 2010, and plans are going ahead for that conference. Of course, it does not help anyone trying to persuade Israel not to have nuclear weapons if Iran continues a nuclear weapons programme that would have the effect, if it were brought to fruition, of many other nations in the middle east pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. That is absolutely the wrong way to go about trying to persuade Israel to adhere to the non-proliferation treaty.


Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin, Conservative)
Although we all want diplomacy to work, the nuclear clock is ticking, and if sanctions do not work will the Foreign Secretary put it on the record that all options remain open to stop Iran becoming a nuclear-weaponised state?

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)
Yes, I repeat what I and previous Governments have said: all options remain on the table. However, I also stress that the policy is important and that we are pursuing it because we do not want Iran to be armed with nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation in the middle east, but we also do not want military conflict over that or any other issue in that region. We are pursuing that policy, but of course all options remain on the table for the future.


Dan Byles (North Warwickshire, Conservative)
What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the time frame within which Iran could develop a credible nuclear capability if it is allowed to continue down that path unchecked?

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)
My hon. Friend will see many estimates and much speculation, and it is best to take all of them with a pinch of salt. Iran is currently enriching uranium to 20%, which is not sufficiently high grade for a nuclear weapon but creates a larger amount of uranium that, at

a later stage, could be enriched quite rapidly to 90% and more, which is a faster process. There are many different estimates of how long that could take, depending on the quantity involved and the number of centrifuges available. He will see estimates of numbers of months rather than years for how long it would take go beyond the 20% level to the higher enriched level. What we do know is that this has become a sufficiently urgent problem that we have to address, with the international community showing unity and resolve, and that is what we are doing with these measures.